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Once Upon a Car

by Bill Castanier
December 19, 2011

Author Bill Vlasic wisely avoided the cliché quote about the relationship between General Motors and the country in his October book on the U.S. auto industry, Once Upon a Car: The Fall and Resurrection of America’s Big Three Automakers. And more than simply avoiding clichés in writing about the rise, fall and rise again of the auto industry since 2008, Vlasic adopted a character-focused narrative style that brings drama and edginess to a topic that is typically beleaguered by a recitation of straight facts and analysis.

Vlasic has been a journalist for more than 34 years, more than half that time covering the U.S auto industry — most recently as Detroit bureau chief for The New York Times. After graduating from Boston University and earning a master’s in journalism from Columbia, he began working for Gannett in the 1980s. In 1994, he started with The Detroit News working on the auto beat.

His first taste of longer-form writing came in 1999 when he wrote Taken for a Ride, an insider’s guide to the ill-fated Daimler-Chrysler alliance.

In many ways this latest story of the industry befits the book’s “Once Upon” title. It is a fairy tale that has unfolded before our eyes: there’s conflict, decisive protagonists and antagonists, and what might be a fairy tale ending. “Might,” because the book leaves open questions about the future of the industry.

The title was well chosen by Vlasic, and his tale may remind many of the classic Wizard of Oz (which, by the way, was conceived in Castle Park, Michigan, and banned in Detroit for a time). There’s a terrible storm, a journey on a mysterious road, a naïve leader, a cowardly lion, a heartless tin man, a scarecrow, a wicked witch or two, a wizard who directs all the activities from behind a curtain, and flying monkeys. You can decide who fits each role.

For most Michiganders the fairy tale of the U.S auto industry is one we are all too familiar with: legendary founders, good jobs, high-pitched battles, high pay, foreign competition, mass closures and layoffs, and resurrection — with the industry always rising again, although each time coming back smaller.

It was a story we all suspected would someday come to a rapacious conclusion. That’s where Vlasic starts. The industry is on the ropes and the flying monkeys are all around it.

The book opens in 2005, with Ford owner Bill Ford courting a top Toyota executive, Jim Farley. A clandestine meeting is held, and at one point Ford tells Farley, “You know, I need help.” Farley reappears at various times in the book, as Vlasic walks us vigorously through those desperate days of the U.S auto industry.

Vlasic said in an interview with Dome that he reluctantly agreed to do the book at about the time the federal TARP (Troubled Asset Relief Program) hearings were being held in 2008. “It was an epic event — it was the turning point for Detroit, the auto industry and a whole way of life,” he said.

To justify a bailout, representatives of the Big Three and the UAW were summoned to Washington for a public hearing before a U.S. Senate committee. As Vlasic points out in the book, the hearings did not begin well — and for a time the story went downhill from there.

The initial hearing was an inquisition of sorts. He writes how Richard Shelby, the Alabama Republican senator “painted Detroit with a broad brutal brush” and asked the blunt question: “Why aren’t you making money?” To which the CEO of General Motors, Rick Wagoner, could only answer in garbled sentences.

“The lack of preparation and coordination among the four was obvious,” Vlasic writes, as he describes Wagoner as a “titan of industry back home. But in the halls of Congress he was just another corporate suit asking for a bailout.”

Adding to the executives’ poor performance were news stories of them using their corporate jets to attend the meetings. Detroit had become a four-letter word and even Saturday Night Live, Vlasic writes, “skewered the Big Three bosses.”

This was an industry that, Vlasic said, “Had never been told no. I don’t think that there was ever a governor or a president who told them no or stood up to them. They, the execs, were always right and never admitted a mistake. Their feet never touched the ground.”

Vlasic does say that Governor Jennifer Granholm was on the phone immediately to Bill Ford and that later “she read [the auto execs] the riot act.” He said the entire negotiations, and her national media interviews to build public support for the loans, may have been her “finer moment.”

Her “empathy for people” who would suffer from auto company bankruptcies and her being frank with the auto execs who “were sort of clueless in what they were doing,” were high points for her.

The plans for saving the auto industry happened so fast, Vlasic compares the response to the action after a major storm. “It was an incredible amount of effort — sort of an emergency response of what to do with GM.”

Ultimately, GM and Chrysler would take a combined $80 billion in bailouts and would be thrown into controlled bankruptcy. The price they paid for survival was enormous and included everything from cutting pay in half for new hires to shuttering plants, dropping brands and downsizing dealer networks, along with allowing significant government ownership of the companies.

“I have to give Obama credit for thinking GM could be saved — he stated very early on his support of a bailout,” Vlasic said. “This was the first time government took a realistic look at what was wrong with these companies. It turned out all this stuff was so overdue.”

Vlasic told Dome he is not as optimistic going forward. “I don’t think the companies are completely fixed. Ask government who the point person is on the auto industry — there is none. Government has a short attention span. I’m not sure [government officials] looked down the road too far once the problem was solved. It moved on pretty quickly.”

He said it’s important for the auto industry not to fall back on the old traps of stretching resources, flooding the market, paying people incentives to buy cars and creating products that would compete with each other.

“During downsizing and loan discussions, GM executives said there was no way they could get rid of Pontiac. Now, two years later, nobody remembers it,” he said.

Vlasic said the character he most admired in the story was Jerry York, who passed away just before the book was published. York, who at one time was on the GM board, was investor Kirk Kerkorian’s right-hand man and seemed to turn up in every negotiation and takeover attempt.

“He was just a big badass,” said Vlasic. “He was very direct, very profane and he saw the forest not the trees. Within GM they saw him as a threat as opposed to an opportunity…maybe one of the lessons is to listen to critics.”

He said auto execs for the longest time went by “hope springs eternal,” and it was always “we’re going to fix the problem,” not “we are going to do it right.”

Vlasic also writes about two moves by desperate auto execs that have received little notice. One was a proposal for the Big Three to enter into a private agreement to jointly fight the UAW during contract talks, and the other was a proposed GM-Ford merger. By re-creating meetings, Vlasic cleverly takes you inside the back rooms of power as desperate execs try to pull themselves out of the fire.

Government ownership put the auto companies in an unusual position, such as having to answer to their owner in discussions such as the CAFÉ (Corporate Average Fuel Economy) standards debates. He said that at a recent hearing on CAFÉ, “GM was in no position to fight their owner.” GM, often called “Government Motors” by those opposed to the bailouts, was at one time 60 percent owned by the federal government. Now it is under 30 percent due to buy downs.

Vlasic said he chose the title for the book carefully. He wanted “car” in the title, he wanted the title to be open to interpretation and he wanted people to know it was a story.

He said he “greatly admired” Barbarians at the Gates: The Fall of RJR Nabisco about the leveraged buyout of Nabisco. That book was later made into a movie.

Vlasic said he conducted more than 100 interviews and reconstructed conversations of various auto executives. In his fascinating narrative style, Vlasic follows one auto executive, Jim Farley, from his early days on the West Coast with Toyota to his triumphant return to Ford Motor Company and Detroit. Farley calls himself a car guy and is quoted in the book as saying “he wants to beat Chevrolet on the head with a baseball bat.” Vlasic also has not cleaned up the auto execs’ penchant for using four-letter words, so parts of the book read like conversations at a bar.

One guy who seems to come off as the modern American hero is Bill Ford, scion of the founder. Ford Motor, which was at the table with Chrysler and GM at public hearings for solidarity, ultimately took no bailout money. Vlasic says the company had already seen what was coming and had restructured.

Along with high-profile individuals like Ford you will find characters such as: GM CEO Rick Wagoner, who lost his job as part of the bailout package; Bob Lutz, vice chairman of GM; Kirk Kerkorian, financier and major GM investor; Dieter Zetsche, head of the Chrysler Division of DaimlerChrysler; Ron Gettelfinger, head of the UAW; Sergio Marchionne, from Fiat; and Alan Mulally, of Ford.

“It was interesting to see the humbling of the auto industry, and it will be interesting to see how they handle success,” Vlasic said. “More than anything, the last few years have shown us we have lived through our glory days — but Detroit is sort of coming back, Detroit isn’t dead.”

To date, the bailouts seemed to have worked. Retooled GM and Chrysler rose from bankruptcy in 40 days and 40 nights and have diligently been paying back loans ahead of time. Cars sales are spiking due to increased fuel efficiency, missteps by foreign manufacturers, and new product lines.

The only criticism I have with this book and others of its kind is that it is desperately in need of a timeline to help you keep track of all the parts and pieces. It could also use a short biographical description of all the major players, because unless you are a car geek they are difficult to track.

Vlasic writes in one chapter that the “drama at General Motors had all the twists and turns of a Hollywood cliffhanger.”

So who will be cast as the flying monkeys?

Bill Castanier, a retired state government administrator and Michigan State University advertising graduate, writes a weekly literary column for Lansing City Pulse and manages the blog mittenlit.com, a daily look at Michigan literature and authors. He also is a member of the Michigan Notable Book selection committee and the board of MSU Press.

December 18, 2011 · Filed under Bookit

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